Features Australia

The end of the affair

China and Australia have filed for divorce

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

China’s wolf warrior diplomats keep warning us to ‘reflect on our deeds’ or learn how it feels to ‘walk into the dark’. Beijing’s hostility towards Australia has taken us by surprise and not just for the obvious economic reasons. We are, for the most part, a pragmatic people who long ago adopted a live-and-let-live attitude to the rest of the world, not least the People’s Republic of China. ‘We make stuff and sell stuff they want,’ declared Scott Morrison on 29 April this year, ‘and they make stuff and sell stuff we want.’

The significance of that 29 April dateline is that it came after Morrison supported Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s demand for an international inquiry into the genesis of Covid-19. In other words, Morrison’s suburban everyman pose might have been intended not so much for local consumption but President Xi Jinping. Translation: Xi Jinping, mate, do go on buying our wine, lobster, dairy products, barley, wheat, beef, coal, iron ore, etc., and keep sending your mass-merchandise stuff our way. Xi, mate, it’s always been about win-win, right? Wrong.

Our invitation to play a role in Xi Ji’s ‘China Dream’ has been cancelled. Iron ore importers aside, China’s compliant corporations and captive population have been ordered to terminate all connections with Australia. Despite any misgivings on their part – misgivings we will likely never hear about – China is responding as one to its government’s diktat, unanimity being a feature of totalitarianism.

Publicly, at least, Morrison and his ministers keep claiming to be ‘disappointed’ and ‘bewildered’ by China’s declaration of economic war on Australia and yet, at some point during the Year of Covid (aka Year of the Rat), it must have dawned on them that Xi was issuing an ultimatum: it’s my way or the highway. We can imagine the stages of grief the Morrison administration has experienced since April – shock, denial, anger, bargaining and depression – on the way to what we can only hope is acceptance.

Acceptance, in this case, means facing up to the unpalatable truth that a divorce – or ‘conscious uncoupling’ as Gwyneth Paltrow might say – is the only realistic option now open to us. Were Australia to address Xi Jinping’s notorious ‘Fourteen Grievances’, we would have to shut up about everything from human rights violations in Xinjiang to China’s cyberattacks in Australia. As a consequence, we would no longer be the Commonwealth of Australia so much as the Australian Special Autonomous Region à la Hong Kong.

There is every reason to believe, given the broadness of the Fourteen Grievances, that the communist politburo’s anger with Australia predates the 2020 pandemic by some time. ANU’s Professor Jane Golley, for instance, argues that a decline in relations began with the Gillard government’s initiative, way back in 2012, to exclude Huawei from participating in the National Broadband Network rollout. The Turnbull government’s 2018 decision to ban Huawei from the roll-out of 5G in Australia was, from the perspective of the communist politburo, the continuation of a pattern of abusive behaviour that had poisoned the Sino-Australian relationship.

The ALP, under Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten before him, had seemed to be in accord with the Coalition when it came to Sino-Australian relations. Like Prime Minister Morrison, and Prime Minister Turnbull before him, they were keen for our export industries to thrive and yet there could be no fudging on matters of national security, such as China’s interference in our domestic politics. In 2018, every Labor senator voted for the National Security Legislation Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill. That legislation, we should note, made it into Beijing’s Fourteen Grievances.

But then, on 2 December, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese betrayed the national interest in order to prop up his waning hold on ALP leadership: ‘This government seems to have presided over a complete breakdown of relationships. The fact that ministers can’t pick up the phone to each other, I find extraordinary.’ The only thing extraordinary about Albanese’s rebuke was his disingenuousness. Former Leader Bill Shorten joined the fray: ‘I’m not sure that our own government has handled this up to now as well as they could have.’

This opening salvo by Albanese and Shorten might have been quickly overshadowed by Beijing’s fabricated depiction of an Australian soldier murdering an Afghani child, but it still had an effect on even this story. The SMH’s Peter Hartcher, at times as partisan as Albanese and Shorten, felt enabled to write a piece about the Afghan photograph being a clever trap set by Beijing and Morrison, through his angry response, ‘obligingly’ walking into it. We can now expect more diatribe along the lines of Katrina Grace Kelly’s recent column one for the Weekend Australian: ‘Do you know what you are doing on China, PM?’

The answer to Kelly’s question is reasonably straightforward and more or less the same answer we might have expected from Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten before 2 December. The second-to-last thing the Morrison government ever wanted to do was embroil our country in a trade war with China. That said, the absolute last thing the Morrison government wants to do is sell out our national security. Unfortunately for our key export industries, not to mention consumers of modestly priced mass-merchandise, the Chinese Communist Party has come to view Australia as a part of its ‘sphere of influence’; and erroneously believed Australia’s national interest was best served by abandoning traditional concerns about national security and, ultimately, our sovereignty. China being China, and Australia being Australia, there is no reasonable likelihood that such a misunderstanding can be negotiated away. We will not be getting back together again while Xi Jinping remains in power. The remonstrations of Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, and now Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, are no more than sound and fury signifying nothing.

The communist politburo, more farsighted than the Morrison government, knew the Sino-Australian relationship was on the rocks before it broke down irretrievably. This is the underlining meaning of the Fourteen Grievances and why Beijing made it available for our edification. The call for a Covid inquiry, in April 2020, was merely the final insult. Beijing subsequently declared war on our economy or, if you like, filed for divorce.

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